The gift of owning up after a breakup (guest post)

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December 24, 2012 by aggiesez

I’ve been putting a fair amount work into this blog, and I’m startinig to feel like it’s really worth the effort. That’s the best holiday gift I could ask for. I’ve seen that several people in the poly/open community are starting to use this blog as a touchstone to discuss and better grasp the importance of showing fairness, respect, and consideration for everyone in a poly network of relationships — including people who aren’t part of a primary couple.

A few days after my Polyamory Weekly interview ran (it concerned my post on how to treat non-primary partners well), host Cunning Minx and I received a note from a man called K who was particularly struck by what we had to say.

This is a great example of a lightbulb going on, illuminating the role of couple privilege. So, with his permission, below is what K had to say.



Some context about this guest post:
So far in this blog I’ve mostly discussed the perspective of non-primary partners who do not wish to become someone’s primary partner. Many non-primary partners simply expect to be treated fairly and well within those relationships. But this case is different: it involves a triad where the newest member strongly wished to become a co-primary partner to a straight married poly couple — and she clearly stated that goal up front.

Wanting to be a co-primary partner, eventually equal in status and voice to the existing primary partners, is a completely valid choice and desire. Like any relationship goal, it should be respected and discussed by everyone involved. In some cases a path to co-primary status might be possible and negotiated. In others, that goal cannot be realized — and then the people involved must decide whether and how to continue the relationship, given that limit.

Either way, when discussing what you want from relationships, it’s crucial for everyone involved (partners and metamours) to be extremely honest about how they feel, what they want, what they will do or try, and what definitely will not work for them. From there, you negotiate.

Ideally this process involves acknowledging why you want what you want — which in many poly relationships can come down to recognizing the hard-to-see role of couple privilege. As I’ve said before, people have the right to run their relationships in any consensual way they choose. If you decide to prioritize your primary relationship in ways that would limit the status, voice, visibility or scope of additional relationships, that’s a valid choice. But in that situation the fair and ethical approach is to acknowledge those constraints clearly up front to new partners, before things proceed very far.

Being so honest and clear can be extremely challenging when everyone’s heart is on the line. In relationships, we’re all vulnerable — and love is an inherently hopeful state. So it’s natural to want to focus on possibilities rather than limits. Still, love is only part of what makes any significant intimate relationship work. It’s important to be aware of not just what everyone wants or hopes, but what you’re really willing or able to offer.

NOTE: K’s letter represents only one side of a story. I don’t have the other perspectives, and none of this information has been corroborated. Nevertheless, this note still is a good example of how someone can recognize and owning up to couple privilege — and the damage it can wreak when it’s not clearly considered.

K’s experience, and his insight

K writes:

Dear Minx: Thank you for all your hard work! There are many of us out here who have greatly benefited — and continue to benefit — from your advice and guidance. And thank you, Aggie, for your blog. I’ve been reading your blog since listening to the Polyamory Weekly podcast …and love it!

Minx, I especially want to thank you for your most recent show on the care of non-primaries. Your discussion with Aggie was incredibly insightful and SO many of the things you both said resonated with me. I just wish I had heard this five years ago!

My wife and I entered into a triad relationship with a woman about four years ago. Although we weren’t looking for it, my wife fell in love with our friend, which then led to the three of us living together as a blended family. Initially it was bliss but the reality of polyamorous struggles hit us full force and our partner moved out while still committed to our relationship.

We sought help in books and on-line resource — both of which greatly helped us. Although we patiently solved many issues with dedication in the relationship, there was an obstacle that could not be overcome. You two squarely nailed this one and frankly, I both cried and laughed at how accurate you were.

In an nutshell, our partner wanted more equitability and wanted it sooner rather than later (which was completely reasonable). Although my wife and I were moving in that direction, we were cautious because of our previous struggles in this relationship.

Eventually, the pressures on all were too great — and like any pressure system, it erupted, ending in our breakup six months ago. We all still love each other very much and are still struggling with finding our way back to friendship.

The reasons for the breakup seem clear now. As intelligent, caring, thoughtful people we actually DID many of the things on Aggie’s “DO” list. But we miserably failed at two of them: we did not clarify our commitments before beginning this relationship; nor did we fully and honestly disclose our constraints, agreements, and boundaries.

Only now do I realize that my wife and I really weren’t willing to offer what we thought we were offering. Our partner wanted to be a co-primary — but being honest with myself, I would never have compromised my marriage. (This, of course, relates directly to one of the “don’ts” — don’t pretend the dynamics of your existing relationship won’t change.) To make someone a co-primary, it takes a 100% commitment with a willing to sacrifice any existing relationship. I wanted my cake and to eat it too.

My wife and I sacrificed a great deal and focused much of our emotional energies on making our partner feel special, but we could never quite get to the point where it was enough for our partner without undermining the integrity of our marriage. (This reminds me of a previous Poly Weekly show on the intimacy-autonomy scale.) Our partner repeatedly told us that she would not be satisfied as a non-primary — but in reality (and now with the benefit of hindsight) I wanted her to be okay with being a non-primary partner. It wasn’t fair.

The bottom line is that your podcast on this topic really helped me see things about our “trouple” from a whole new perspective, and to own up to the mistakes I made, however unintentional they were. I know now that if my wife and I ever enter in a polyamorous relationship again, we will cover all our bases and honestly go through each of the do’s and don’ts of treating non-primaries well.

Again, thank you!

K

Closing editorial note

Many thanks to K for letting me share his letter.

I did ask K why he assumed that accepting their partner as a co-primary would have necessarily “compromised” their marriage; why “to make someone a co-primary, it takes a 100% commitment with a willing to sacrifice any existing relationship.” I’ve had some further discussions with him privately about this, and I still don’t agree this is necessarily true. However, K believes this to be the case for his marriage — and that’s what mattered here. Still, I’d encourage anyone involved in poly relationship negotiations to question such extreme assumptions which inherently eliminate negotiation and options.

I also asked K whether he’d shared his insight with his former partner — the person to whom he realized he’d been unfair. He confessed to some resistance to doing this, since their post-relationship connection has been limited and tense, and since he felt she’d acted in ways that she needed to own up to as well.

However, after thinking it over, K did send their former partner a note sharing his insight. He owned up to her about his conduct, and apologized for treating her unfairly.

I was especially touched by this gesture — and that was admittedly a deeply personal reaction for me. I’ve had more than one treasured non-primary relationship meet a jarring demise on the shoals of unacknowledged couple privilege.

We’re all human, and as far as I know no one behaves perfectly in any relationship. So often after a breakup, even an ugly one, owning up can be the foundation of a bridge to friendship — or at least to parting on amicable terms. It’s hard to build any kind of positive or civil “aftership” with an elephant in the room.

If during your relationship you denied or deflected questions about your behavior and choices, it can be especially healing and validating for your former partner (and a relief to your own conscience) if you just take a deep breath and say: “Yes, this is what was really going on for me. I may not have said so at the time, but I’m saying so now.” Even if you don’t regret your actions and choices. Or even if what went wrong was that you slammed into a big boundary you didn’t anticipate, despite your best efforts.

Owning up to someone you’ve hurt isn’t easy — but it’s part of Adult Relationships 101 (poly or otherwise). It may be tempting to sit back and wait for the other person to own up first to their role in the relationship’s demise. But if you know you should own up, then it doesn’t matter whether or how the other person responds. You do it because it’s the right thing to do.

So in the spirit of the holiday season: Owning up to your behavior in a relationship can be the greatest parting gift you can offer to someone you once loved — and to yourself. It’s a way of demonstrating that what you shared did matter and was valued, even though it had to end. And it’s a way to move through regret, guilt, resentment and shame toward acceptance of each other for who you really are.

That’s what K tried to do. Bravo.

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